Oct 1 1995

The Great Spectrum Giveaway

In the late ’80s, there was a lot of talk about “high-definition television” (HDTV)–a new generation of TV technology that promised cinema-quality images for home viewers. The catch was that the FCC would have to turn over to station owners vast amounts of unused broadcast spectrum space to carry the new data-rich transmissions.

It sounded like a good deal to the Federal Communications Commission–particularly since, after a several-year transition period (allowing consumers time to buy new high-definition TV sets) the old-style TV channels might no longer be needed, and could be reassigned for other uses.

In the past couple of years, however, technological advances–and the prospect of big money–have changed most broadcaster’s plans. Through digital broadcasting, it’s now feasible to run four to six different regular-quality TV programs on the width of spectrum that was previously going to be used for one HDTV channel. Or a portion of the frequencies could be used for a variety of high-tech communications–from paging services to wireless data transmission.

Naturally, licensees can make more money selling commercials on four new regular channels than on one new high-resolution channels. So the current analog TV stations want to be given the new digital licenses, for free, with virtually no restrictions over what they’ll do with it.

In other words, publicly owned broadcast frequencies worth tens of billions of dollars–some say as much as $100 billion–would be given away to private companies for whatever purposes they choose. This spectrum giveaway would actually be mandated by law under the House version of the telecommunications “reform” law.

But there is no logical reason why each TV station owner should be given several more channels. Nearly everyone feels that present TV programming leaves much to be desired–why would we want four times as much of it from the same sources? If we are going to create dozens of new channels, doesn’t it make sense to create new, independent stations to counteract the growing concentration of media ownership? Since the vast majority of all TV stations are now owned by white male-dominated, for-profit corporations, why not use this opportunity to allow more diverse control of the nation’s most powerful medium?

The FCC has asked for public comment on the issue of whether to give existing stations valuable new spectrum space. FAIR urges its supporters to speak out against a plan that gives away more of the airwaves to those corporations that already dominate broadcast channels.

Nor is auctioning off the public airwaves to the highest bidder the answer. That would simply insure that more well-financed corporations, like phone and cable companies, would be able to take over a large chunk of the airwaves.

If more TV channels are going to be created, they should be assigned to those who can best serve the public interest, and provide much-needed independence and diversity to the broadcast spectrum.

What to Do

Make your voice heard in support of the principle that public interest standards should determine who gets access to new broadcast channels. The deadline for comments is November 15. To make a formal communication, send ten copies of your letter to:

Office of the Secretary


1919 M Street, NW

Washington, D.C. 20554

Include the case number, 87-268.

You can also fax to 202-418-2801 or e-mail your thoughts to the FCC:

Chairman William Kennard